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It Takes Two to Tango in Project Management

Project management – like life – can be unpredictable. The project management methodology that people adopt, however, is usually very predictable. The UK uses PRINCE2; the US uses PMI's PMBOK Guide. Both have similarities and differences and companies that recognize the special relationship between the two approaches are reaping the benefits of both.

In the last two years the UK’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC) released PRINCE2 2009 to replace the 2005 version and the US’s Project Management Institute (PMI) published PMBOK 4th Edition to replace the 3rd Edition. The similarities do not end there.

The OGC’s and PMI’s latest editions have had new sections inserted and old ones combined or cut to make them more coherent and cohesive. PMI’s PMBOK 4th Edition aims to align it with other standards, such as the Standard for Program Management: Second Edition. PRINCE2 2009 signals its clear link to other methods and bodies of knowledge and aligns with other OGC products; for instance, the term ‘Themes’ replaces 2005’s ‘Components’. Both systems have clarified the language: PMBOK’s process names are in a verb-noun format; PRINCE2 has ditched obscure codifications (such as SU1) that public consultations highlighted as difficult to understand. Both methods cross continents and cultures and both offer a generic approach for use with almost any project.

It is the differences, though, that make the UK and US systems so complementary in project management. PRINCE2 is a structured method for managing projects in the public and private sectors detailing from start to finish the activities to execute in a project. Focussing on key risk areas, it guides the Project Management team and organisation on how to create a successful project but equally offers greater flexibility and control than before. A PRINCE2 2009 project is led primarily from the top with the Project Board providing essential input. Considered as comprehensive and generally descriptive, PMBOK is a body of knowledge that details generally accepted best practices in terms of norms, processes and methods that successful Project Managers should know. Indeed, whilst recognising the role and input of sponsors and stakeholders a PMBOK project is led primarily by the Project Manager.

Driven by the needs and requirements of the customer, PMBOK has a set of Knowledge Areas (around which the manual revolves) and Process Groups to which 42 project management processes with inputs, outputs, tools and techniques belong. Knowledge Areas include Integration Management, Scope, Time and Cost Management and Procurement Management. Process Groups set out the sequence in which Processes are used. Initiating refers to defining a new project or phase when one obtains authorisation to start. Planning establishes the scope and defines the plan of approach. Executing involves doing the work. The Monitoring and Control sections of the processes track the project’s progress and check performances identifying and implementing the required changes.

Driven by the needs and requirements of the business PRINCE2 2009 now makes explicit the Principles - obligations and good practices – that were only implicit in its predecessor. Seven in all, arguably the most critical of the principles is that project should start and only continue to the end if business justification exists throughout its life; it is common sense, after all, not to throw good money after bad. The 2009 version is also alive to the PINO syndrome and so underlines the principle of management by stages and end-of-stage assessments as a control.

PRINCE2 2009 has seven Themes including: Business Case, Change and Progress to which seven Processes belong. The starting-up project process is actually pre-project involving the project board and the project management layers culminating in a clear project brief at the end. In PRINCE2 2009, completed project elements can be handed over immediately so that the supplier gets paid and the customer gets access to the product as quickly as possible. The seven Processes in turn have a set of Activities (formerly obscure codified sub-processes) that suggest some sequencing but it is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure things get done. These activities are made up of clear and recommended but not prescriptive Actions.

PMBOK and PRINCE2 do not offer a one-size-fits-all formula. Each suggests that organisations tailor the system to suit the project culture. PRINCE2 2009 has taken this on board with a dedicated Tailoring PRINCE2 section to help users scale the method to the specific environment of their project; Project Environment looks at areas such as projects in a programme, alignment with other lifecycle models and bodies of knowledge.

Like all good partnerships, PRINCE2’s 2009 and PMBOK’s 4th Edition have similarities such as Knowledge Areas and Themes and Processes and Activities. But like the best partnerships, it is the differences that make them unbeatable in project management. Two project management approaches are better than one.